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Ask Sahaj: My White, liberal in-laws don’t understand racial issues

(María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration; iStock)
3 min

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and a mental health professional, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.

Dear Sahaj: I’m a first-generation Latina woman, and I recently experienced a racist event while on a beach vacation with my husband’s White, liberal family. They were not the aggressor. I was shaken, and my husband was able to be there for me the way I needed.

However, I realized that except for him, his family isn’t a place for me to land and be heard. Even when the world is on fire with discrimination, they discuss the issues but don’t actually actively engage with me about how I walk through life and experience these things … even on vacation. They have also unknowingly made several microaggressions.

I feel weary and discouraged and don’t know if I can broach the issue and be understood. How should I approach this?

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— To broach or not

To broach or not: First, I want to say: I am sorry that you experienced that on vacation, and whatever you are feeling is valid.

I also want to remind you that microaggressions, despite having the word “micro” in them, are not small experiences. In fact, they have the potential to significantly and negatively impact a person’s self-concept and chip away at their self-worth. I can imagine how isolating this experience was, and how arduous it may feel to have to help guide and teach your in-laws.

At the same time, your in-laws may not recognize they are perpetuating harm. And if you want to be in a safer, more secure relationship with them, then it may be worth broaching this conversation with them. However, it’ll be important for you to consider if these are relationships worth investing in — and if you think they have the capacity to change or really hear you.

If having this conversation head-on feels too uncomfortable, consider watching a movie together or sharing a news article or book that includes racial identity as a prominent theme. Even if it’s a less heavy movie or a novel, you can ask open-ended questions as a way to broach the topic without it being about you just yet.

If you want to take it one step further, you could consider sharing a separate personal experience of a microaggression or racism not involving your family and see how they react and respond to that.

But remember: It’s not your job to do the work for them. You get to decide how much you want to engage them in this.

Also consider how involved you’d like your husband to be in these conversations. Would it be useful for you to discuss ways he can approach this conversation with his family without you, or ways he can step up when they perpetuate a microaggression? While I appreciate that he is able to be there for you in ways you need, I wonder if there is more he can do with his own privilege as both a White man and as a member of his family system.

Remember that people don’t change overnight. And having realistic expectations of what may come from this dialogue, both in the short-term and in the long-term, is important. No matter how you decide to broach this topic, “I” statements will allow you to share your experience and may keep your in-laws from getting defensive.

Finally, it’s critical that you find ways to take care of yourself through this process: making sure you have outside support to rely on, or setting stricter boundaries around the time you spend with your in-laws. You deserve to protect your energy, always.